Invitation to Systems Thinking

Jessica Kerr & Kent Beck November 10 & 12, 2020
10:30 AM - 2:30 PM (MST)

Are you frustrated with how illogical the world is and baffled by how smart people and well-written software can do wrong things?

If you long for the days when programs were correct and people believed rightly, well sorry, we can’t help you.

But if you’re ready to find new ways of making sense of the world, and discovering new tools for acting in the world as it is right now, this workshop is for you.

Kent Beck and Jessica Kerr will step through an introduction to systems thinking. With examples from software and life, and concepts like feedback loops and leverage points and propensities, we will step through the basics of seeing and changing systems.

We will resolve paradoxes like “Theseus’s Ship” and “The Chicken and The Egg”, gain insight into distributed systems and symmathesies, and answer questions like, “Why is romantic love so powerful?” and “Why does software get harder to change over time?” and “Why will your enterprise never let you self-organize?”

Come with your questions, leave with new (and maybe even better?) questions.

Who is this for?

Someone who has broken down their system reductively optimized each bit, and reached the limit of usefulness of that view, despaired of any alternatives, reduced to action for action’s sake.

Someone who has heard of systems thinking, but not read the books. Who has time to read all that? Chat with Kent and Jessica instead. Then you’ll be excited about reading the books.

What You’ll Learn:

  • How to notice feedback loops.
  • How to distinguish levels.
  • How to find leverage points for change.

What You’ll Unlearn:

  • Cause comes before effect.
  • Coordination comes from centralized control.
  • Things happen because someone intends them to happen.
  • If something works, we can scale it.
  • Science is about knowing things.
  • Certainty is our friend.
  • Human error is a root cause.
  • Constraints reduce possibilities.

Session 1

We’ll introduce some of the concepts of systems thinking (feedback loops, circular causality, levels) and describe examples we’ve seen in software, biology, and our own lives. We’ll ask you for examples of things that don’t work rationally, and then see if we can make sense of them with an influence diagram.

Session 2

Once we see a system, how do we change it? Based on the scenarios people bring up in the first session, we’ll go over the leverage points in a system. You may be surprised at which ones are the most powerful. We’ll talk about how systems change, and what helps them sustain. Go away with ideas of how we can keep our software resilient and our teams growing.


  • Two 180-minute class sessions
  • 60-minute break during each session

About Jessica Kerr

Jessica Kerr is a Symmathecist at Jessitron, LCC (translation: independent consultant). In twenty years of developing software, she finds it doesn't get easier -- only more and more interesting. She's known for her talks on functional programming, git, Scala, Clojure, Elm, Ruby, and the Florentine Camerata. Find her at, and on the Greater than Code and Arrested DevOps podcasts, and on twitter @jessitron.

About Kent Beck

Kent consistently challenges software engineering dogma, promoting ideas like patterns, test-driven development, and Extreme Programming. Currently affiliated with Three Rivers Institute and Gusto, he is the author of many Addison-Wesley titles.